After a convoluted turn of events, the Italian Parliament that has been in place since 2018 has been dissolved, and establishment Prime Minister Mario Draghi has resigned. His government finally fell apart at the end of July, and the President has scheduled new elections for September 25th.
What is the outlook for this election, and the next five years for Italy? There will be the usual jockeying for coalitions between now and then, but the polls are clear- the right is going to win, most likely led by Giorgia Meloni’s “Fratteli D’Italia” [Brothers of Italy, often abbreviated FdI]. She is ultimately business friendly, but, is a euro skeptic and may blow up the carefully crafted plans of the Italian establishment and the EU. Her party has emphasized social issues, and vows to push back hard against certain mandates on gender, identity, and immigration pushed by the EU. And they will certainly re-orient public spending and taxation towards the rich and corporations, and away from families and small businesses.
We need a brief detour to explain the Italian political context. It’s a Parliamentary system like the UK, but instead of a monarch endorsing governments, they have an appointed (not elected by the people) President. Italy has multiple parties, and at least four parties that will get ~10% of the vote or up in this upcoming election. Because no party has a majority, they have to cobble together coalitions to govern, and often involving several parties and a host of compromises.
Parliamentary systems also are different from ones like the US, because the members of Parliament directly vote for the Prime Minister, usually representing their parties, who then runs the government. The shifting sands of loyalties mean that the same representatives can rotate Prime Ministers, or even switch sides from left to right and create new coalitions to select a different PM. And furthermore, people frequently change parties, create new parties, and stab allies in the back. As a result, Italy constantly sees new Prime Ministers (roughly one per year since WW2) and odd coalitions emerge out of expediency. The President (who is also voted on by the Parliament, but has a fixed five year term and cannot be replaced) is the one manages the process of rotating prime ministers and coalitions along with other official head of state duties. When no working government alliance can be found, he can say “back to the drawing board” and call a snap election- which is what just happened.
Italy last held elections in 2018- the two leading parties were the Five Star Movement (often abbreviated M5S) and Lega who formed an uneasy coalition. 5 Star is pure populism, favoring handouts to everyone and devolving power. Lega, led by the very vocal Matteo Salvini, is a center right party, built around zero immigration and SME friendly policies.
Over time Lega and M5S drifted apart. M5S ended up doing a deal with the left to remain in power. Out of that arrangement, former Goldman banker and ECB head Mario Draghi took over in early 2021. 5 Star has split and the remaining members have pulled their support for Draghi. He resigned, but initially the President won’t let him leave and tried to get a new working coalition. Ultimately, it did not work, and the President called for elections. It is possible they would join with the right again to get government jobs and funding, but there are no guarantees.
What would the inevitable new election produce? Simply put, it will create a populist right wing government with a strong mandate. Most polls look generally like this one from Ipsos, with the comparison bars the parties’ 2018 showings:
If an election were held today, the right wing parties would garner 45% of the votes, and over 50% of seats. Italy gives an additional seat bonus to the leading party and has cut-off levels to win seats in Parliament, which some of the left wing parties won’t hit. Another undiscussed factor is turnout – in every election in the EU except perhaps France, the right has outperformed its poll numbers as their supporters showed up in full strength, whereas supporters of the incumbents remained tepid. In Hungary the polls understated Fidesz’s support by roughly 8%.
The existing government of Draghi’s party, the PD, would get only 23%. Various other left wing groups would ally with them and add perhaps 6-10%. But it’s still far short of the votes and seats needed to secure a majority. M5S had been partnered with the PD in the government, but the partnership fell apart, so they are likely to be on their own in the next cycle.
The Shape of the Right Wing Government
Totaling up the three major parties of the right, who have vowed to work together, we get the following:
FDI (Fratelli D’Italia/Brothers of Italy) – 23.3%
Lega - 13.5%
Forza Italia – 9.0%
FDI [Fratelli D’Italia / Brothers of Italy) is a euro skeptic party similar to Lega. It is led by Giorgia Meloni and has had a lead in the polls for over two years due to its emphasis on social issues.
In government from 2018 to 2020, Lega led to immigration restrictions and other domestic measures. FI (Forza Italia) is Berlusconi’s old party and typically teams up with other right wingers to stay in government.
Fratelli D’Italia are an interesting party for several reasons. Their leader has repeatedly campaigned on major social issues. She constantly leads with her Italian Christian heritage. She has vowed to end gay marriage, and to install a monthly family allowance of 400 euros (in a country where the average family makes probably 1200 euros). Along with Lega, she wants to shut the border to new refugees and deport illegal immigrants. They have also vowed to reexamine many of Italy’s agreements with the EU and renegotiate the ones that are most unfavorable to the country. There are some whiffs of respect for Mussolini in the party’s membership, and of course it’s been tarred and feathered as neo-fascist party by the mainstream media.
The longer the poor economy and the high inflation environment goes on, the larger the support will become for the right win parties, especially Italexit and Fratelli D’Italia. When they take power, they will actively talk about stiffing the EU, leaving the eurozone and other radical measures.
FDI would likely be joined by Italexit, which started just last year. The party, as you can guess from its name, wants Italy to exit the EU and euro and is virulently anti-establishment. Currently at 3%, they probably can sneak over the minimum threshold to gain seats in the next Parliament. If they gain seats and join the government coalition, financial markets and the EU would undoubtedly panic. Wielding such an extreme threat would be a great asset for the government- they have a red button they can push when they need to.
Financially speaking, the new government will face a very difficult task, as it has to do four things simultaneously: a) boost growth via competitiveness b) cut government spending and generate a surplus c) first stabilize, then lower government debt to GDP d) not default on anything. This is going to be a difficult needle to thread, especially if the financial markets don’t trust the leadership. It’s hard to predict now if this actually does end up in an eventual Italexit. But at least the option is going to be on the table.
The Simmering Populist Revolt
Italian real wages have been flat since 1997. The population is totally fed up with the political class and their own falling purchasing power. Farmers have been protesting similar to the Netherlands and Canada. Popular polls show support for the country’s existing immigration system is incredibly low. The polls have shown that for the past two years the right wing is popular and has a solid base. While this was true headed into the 2018 elections, those parties were not able to work together and deliver lasting reforms. The ideological differences of the coalition parties would be far smaller, and the resulting changes should be more substantial.
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